Shadow Government

Why President Obama rarely talks about the war

President Obama did something unusual yesterday: he sought to allay concerns that his war strategy was not working and answered questions about events in Afghanistan.

It was not unusual that there were concerns about the war strategy. It was unusual that Obama would acknowledge those concerns and speak to them. In fact, it is unusual for Obama to speak about the war at all.

Has there ever been a president who has invested the country so heavily in war who has spoken so little about that investment?

The avoidance of war talk and especially the avoidance of awkward questions about the war may be part of a larger campaign strategy to keep the president away from situations that the campaign does not tightly control. This is a president who has struggled with unscripted gaffes. He does fine when he is delivering prepared remarks with the aid of a teleprompter, but some of his most memorable and damaging comments have been when he was straying from scripted remarks or answering something other than a soft-ball question from the press. The campaign probably calculates that the risks of producing another "you didn't build that" or "the private sector is doing fine," outweigh any benefits and so restrict the access of even the largely sympathetic press corps.

That sympathetic press corps is starting to get fidgety, however. I have had multiple contacts from reporters in recent days, each thinking about writing some variant of the "why doesn't President Obama talk about the Afghanistan war" story?

My answer to that question is too complex to fit in a reporter's quote, alas.

Part of it may be that the president is not an especially effective communicator. Some of his set-piece speeches have gotten high marks, but he really does seem tied to the teleprompter. And, as he showed in the debate leading up to the passage of Obamacare, the president can talk about something without ceasing and still not persuade large majorities of the American public to embrace his policy. Scholars of presidential rhetoric say that this is a more general weakness -- that the bully pulpit is more limited than the popular imagination believes, especially when attempting to pass legislation.

Yet despite the limitations of the bully pulpit, most war presidents have recognized the need to communicate with the American public on a regular basis to explain the war, address the inevitable setbacks, and, not inconsequentially, reassure the troops that the president has not forgotten them and still has their back. Moreover, President Obama is willing to talk repeatedly about the Osama bin Laden strike -- even when such talk appears to have anything but the effect of reassuring the troops (or at least some of the troops).

Part of the answer is also that Obama's Afghanistan stance has evolved dramatically from where it was in 2008. When he was last running for president, Obama talked about Afghanistan as the necessary war. He talked like he was committed to winning it, not merely ending it. Now it seems clear that he does not think it is possible to achieve in Afghanistan anything like the definition of success that animated his war stance in 2008. The more he talks about Afghanistan, the more evident this contrast will be.

Part of the answer may also be that because Obama's war aims have shifted, his de facto policy actually might enjoy majority support. Most Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan and tell pollsters "the U.S. should not be involved in Afghanistan now." Moreover, they approve of the U.S. withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, which is the aspect of his war strategy that Obama emphasizes the most. Of course, Obama scores better with the public on foreign policy more generally than he does on the economy where the public has strongly negative evaluations. Although the question is not asked very often, he also has a slight advantage on Afghanistan. So perhaps the Obama administration believes they are doing as well as can be hoped with the public in this area.

And part of the answer is that Obama has thoroughly lost his base on Afghanistan. It is not clear that the left truly believed in the war in 2008, but it is absolutely clear they do not believe in the war now. The left has not yet mobilized against the Afghanistan war the way they mobilized against the Iraq war, and if Obama wins a second term perhaps they won't (if Romney wins, I expect anti-war factions to regain some of their 2006 mojo). The Obama campaign has put all of its 2012 electoral bets on a base mobilization strategy, and so the last thing the president wants to do is remind his base of anything he has done that they don't like.

For all these reasons, and perhaps others, President Obama has largely shirked the traditional commander in chief duty of mobilizing political and public support for the wars he is leading. In contrast with President Bush, who clearly believed in the wars he led and sought every opportunity to try to rally the public to the war cause, President Obama seems far more ambivalent about some of his war duties.

I wonder if Obama faces any pressure inside the White House on this matter. So far as I can tell, the Obama White House has not created a unit like the White House Iraq Group (WHIG), the Bush-era committee charged with explaining the war to the American people. The WHIG is infamous in Bush-hating circles as the "shadowy" organization that allegedly came up with the strategy to "mislead" the American public with "exaggerated" claims about Iraqi WMD. So I guess we should not be surprised that the Obama White House has not created the WHAG, the White House Afghanistan Group.

I was not in the White House during the period when the WHIG was doing the things that drive Bush-haters around the bend. The period I know best is after 2005, by which point the WHIG was focused on something that should seem more appealing to the Obama White House: making sure the American people and their political representatives understood the logic behind the war strategy and were equipped with the best information about the war that could be assembled.

And, crucially, the WHIG spent a fair bit of time thinking through how best to have the president lead in this effort. If the Obama White House is engaged in a similar activity, no reporter I have talked to has uncovered it.

The Obama White House has certainly devoted itself to trying to persuade the public to support the President, and perhaps some of that effort helps shore up support for the war. But so far as I can determine, the Obama White House has not devoted itself to trying to persuade the public to support the war itself -- and it doesn't appear that anyone in the White House has this as a priority item on his or her to do list.

Jose CABEZAS/AFP/GettyImages

Shadow Government

The perils of staffing and stage-managing

A few months ago, the Obama campaign received some negative press for a poorly attended campaign rally. Instead of the overflow crowds expected, the president spoke to a cavernous hall filled with empty seats. I was reminded of this when I read this post over at the Weekly Standard blog, itself drawing on Politico's ebook on the Obama campaign infighting.

That's a lot of hyperlinking to make one further connection: when I first read the story it reminded me of another disastrous rally at Ohio State, this time in 1998,  in the St. John's basketball arena (the Obama rally was in the Schottenstein Center, the basketball arena that replaced St. John's).

In 1998, the Clinton administration was engaged in an escalating war of words with Saddam Hussein over Iraq's failure to cooperate with international weapons inspectors. The Clinton administration claimed Hussein was hiding his WMD programs from the inspectors. The administration threatened to use military strikes to force compliance (people with shorter memories will think I am describing the Bush era 2002-2003 confrontation with Iraq, but in fact a very similar dynamic had unfolded some five years earlier, which helps explain why Bush got such strong bipartisan support for the 2002 congressional bill authorizing the use of force against Iraq).  Indeed, by December 1998, the Clinton administration did order Operation Desert Fox, the largest set of airstrikes in between the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion. In the beginning of 1998, however, the Clinton administration was hoping to avoid those airstrikes by achieving its diplomatic goals through threats and coercive diplomacy.

The Clinton effort at coercive messaging was foundering, however, because the Beltway was consumed with the Lewinsky affair, which broke on Jan. 17, 1998 with the famous Drudge Report story based on leaks from a Newsweek investigation. Within days, the Lewinsky scandal was the only thing people would talk about, which was enormously frustrating for Clinton national security policymakers who argued, with good reason, that there were other pressing issues that deserved national attention -- like Iraq.

So the administration hit upon the bright idea of going out of the Capitol and into the heartland, away from the Lewinsky-obsessed press and to a community presumably more ready to discuss big issues not involving "that woman, Miss Lewinsky."  The administration deployed the top three national security policymakers -- Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen, and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger -- to conduct a conversation on Iraqi WMD programs moderated by CNN host Judy Woodruff.  

However, the OSU-Iraq event was botched, and Clinton insiders told the New York Times it was because perhaps because the A-team for spin did not plan the OSU event, presumably because they were in damage-control mode on Lewinsky. The administration advance people picked a venue far too big (sound familiar?) and then exercised inadequate control over who attended, allowing in members of the Spartacist League, a notorious group of rabble rousers. Rather than getting the civil conversation they expected, the Clinton cabinet officials were soon drowned out by hecklers and protestors. Instead of signaling resolve to Hussein, the event signaled administration chaos. Indeed, the Clinton administration itself seemed to come away from the event shaken and doubting the public's resolve in a confrontation with Iraq. 

Of course, the Obama event was a snafu of a different sort, and, arguably, far less important. But the two events struck similar chords for me, and I thought the echoes worth noting.  

At a minimum, they remind me, as a lowly former staffer, of the way that principals are at risk every time they trust staffers to do something for them. The May 2012 event was not the fault of Obama, nor was the February 1998 event the fault of Albright, Cohen, and Berger. Yet they, and to a certain extent their policies, paid the public price  for what was most likely low-level staffing errors.  Good staffing can make leaders look better than they deserve.  Bad staffing can make them look worse than they deserve.

And perhaps some Democrats are wondering why they have been snake-bit by OSU twice. The next time a staffer has a bright idea of an event to show-case the administration, I am guessing OSU will not get the nod.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images